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Mules are extraordinary creatures, whether high-jumping in Dallas or carrying kitchen tables in Bishop, Calif. There was a contest at the Texas State Fair in which 10 mules jumped over a bar that was raised two inches after every jump. You never saw 10 animals look so pleased with themselves. Mule jumping is an old-timey sport that folks say got started in the Arkansas backwoods when farmers rode mules while coon hunting, saddle horses being too scarce and expensive. Upon coming to a fence the hunter would dismount and climb over. He would throw a gunnysack across the top wire or rail so that the mule could judge the height, and then motion the critter to come on over. Naturally, arguments developed over how high the fences were, and farm-lot contests and heavy betting followed.
In the modern mule-show variation, the handler leads his mule up to the crossbar and walks around to the other side. Most mules jump from a standing start, though a running jump is not prohibited. The mules at the Texas State Fair walked up to the wooden crosspiece and felt it with their necks or chests to determine the height. Then they sank back momentarily, folded their front legs and pushed off with their powerful hind legs, arching up and over in surprisingly graceful demonstrations of strength and coordination.
In general, a mule show is modeled on a horse show, but where a sophisticated horse-show crowd is restrained in its enthusiasm, a mule-show crowd is loud and uninhibited. The crowd identifies with the mules so completely that every successful jump evokes an explosion of cheers and huzzahs, to which the mules respond with obvious self-satisfaction. But before all this begins to sound all too perfect, it must be reported that there is one small problem with mule jumping.
A mule is equally satisfied if he misses the bar entirely, knocks it down or, when it gets high enough, walks underneath it. In fact, a mule seems to feel most satisfied if he can leave his owner frantically gesticulating on the other side of the crosspiece in front of all those spectators. Moreover, a mule that is able to jump over a five-foot fence while warming up outside the arena may simply stop and stare at a bar only 48 inches high when the judges are watching and the crowd is waiting for it to jump. To call this stubbornness misses the curious appeal of a mule show. The appeal lies in sitting in on the proof that, yessir, mules are congenitally unable to resist making things as hard as possible for people whenever they have a chance.
The Texas State Fair is one of the biggest in the country and last fall's mule show was its first. Members of the Southwestern Donkey and Mule Society were hoping for records, or at least for performances that would be impressive for the television cameras trained on their mules. But the contest shook down to four finalists; all of them attempted to jump 49 inches but couldn't seem to get any higher. One broke the bar and was out. Another was disqualified when it sensibly tried to get to the other side of the bar by walking around it. The great mule-jumping contest ended in a tie between Red Beauty and Ginger. It was all for the best, since there were no more wooden crosspieces left anyway.
The contest did prove one thing. Mules have never been as well off as they are now. The modern world of recreation offers infinitely more opportunities for doing things wrong than existed when mules were only work animals. Last spring 40,000 people lined the streets of Bishop (population, 3,958) to watch the parade that opened the annual Mule Days celebration. Bishop is a resort outpost 300 miles northeast of Los Angeles, with the Sierra, impassable except by trail, standing by. The mountains rise abruptly to some 13,000 feet just west of town, and Bishop is headquarters for a score of pack outfits that take tourists on horse and pack-mule trains over the trails.
Unbelievable as it seems in the light of their reputation, mules are the pampered aristocrats of the backcountry. About 1,000 glossy, well-fed mules live around Bishop, their labors limited to packing seven or eight miles a day for a few weeks in the year. The rest of their time is spent enjoying the lush pastures of the Owens River valley. Some are even trailered south to warmer pastures. Horses may accept such treatment as no more than what they deserve, but heretofore mules have been associated with hard labor, hauling coal cars in mines, towing canal boats, pulling cannons and plowing cotton fields. In the supreme example of animal hardihood they were harnessed in 20-mule teams that dragged wagons loaded with borax (total weight, 73,200 pounds) across Death Valley just south of Bishop. Until 1875 more freight was hauled by American mules than was carried by all U.S. railways.
Since man began breeding horses with donkeys to get a durable work animal, nobody seems to have expected mules to be anything else until the present enthusiasm for mule shows started. A mule show is a hybrid sort of event. "We took some things from horse shows and some from rodeo," says Dave MacRoberts, a McGee Creek packer who was one of the founders of Bishop's Mule Days. "Pole bending, barrel races and pleasure mule riding are like horse-show events. Steer stopping came from calf roping in rodeo. The mile run is like any horse race. But the packing scramble we developed ourselves."
As a result of all this, a mule show differs from a horse show in the way a mule differs from a horse. In the hide race in Bishop's mule show, for example, the mules and their riders race some 40 yards across the arena, each dragging a large dried cowhide. On the far side, a line of accomplices is waiting—small boys, skinny teen-agers, young ladies in trim riding costumes with hair newly beauty-parlored for the occasion. When the mules reach this line they wheel and run back the way they have come. The cowhides fly out at the end of their ropes. The youngsters make flying leaps to grab the ropes and, simultaneously, throw themselves flat on the cowhides like baseball players getting back to first base. While the mules sprint back to the starting line, the youngsters lie prone on the cowhides, jolting and bouncing, sending up clouds of dust. It is all over in seconds, victory going to the team of mule rider and cowhide rider with the shortest elapsed time. It is difficult to tell who has won because the event ends in a great cloud of dust.
The grand finale of Mule Days is the packing scramble, which suggests some highly organized horse show gone berserk. The scene is a simulated night camp. The packers enter the arena, each carrying packs to be loaded on his mules, and a concrete block to tie his mules to. These tie-down blocks are placed strategically to give each packer room to maneuver and to enable him to keep out of the way of his rivals' mules. The packers shake out their bedrolls and climb into their sleeping bags. All of this takes some time, but when at last everything is quiet the main gate is opened and all the mules are driven into the arena.